Thursday, July 31, 2014

Travelogue 568 – July 31
And She’s Far Away

It’s Menna’s birthday today, and she’s far away. We will talk on the phone, with any luck. The connection will be poor. Each will only just be able to make out what each is saying. We will have to speak in the shortest sentences, the simplest thoughts. ‘Are you happy?’

Menna’s sister has had a baby, the first of its generation. I can just make out the boy’s cries in the background when Menna and I do talk. “He’s a big baby,’ she says. ‘I’m holding him.’ I ask after her sister. ‘What?’ I ask after her sister. ‘She’s fine. She’s doing well.’ The snowy silences are winning, encroaching on our spare words.

Menna’s sister lives in the outskirts of the city. There is no internet nearby. They’ve canceled old CDMA services in the city, the mobile network services that we have used for years. They’ve canceled her old mobile number. We’re having to call via her Dutch number. We don’t know how long that will last.

I have dropped her off at the airport in Amsterdam, only days ago, at the beginning of this week. We have to wake at 4:30am for an early check-in. The taxi shows up outside the hotel. It’s a van, with seating space for half a dozen in the back. We squeeze together there, against the chill of the morning, against the last darkness of the night. It’s only a few miles to the airport, driving under the yellow spotlights of the big city. At the airport, numbers of summer travelers are already unloading their cars outside the terminal. Daylight is just breaking above us. In the long line for package check-in, there are listless people in shorts, speaking in Dutch, in German, in Polish, in Arabic, in Spanish, in French.

The day is just closing, the light loosening its hold, the sky becoming deeper and richer in its tones of blue. The red remaining in the sky is soaking into the brick of old Amsterdam. We are emerging from the Jordaan district, to the west of the busy centrum. This is our favorite area of the city, where the brick lanes and the tiny bridges are quieter, where the tourist traffic dips just a bit, where a couple might just walk hand in hand along the sweet old pavements and be alone for only a moment.

We have spent an hour of the evening in a fruitless search for the little restaurant where we had had a beautiful meal just over a year ago, when Menna had just arrived. The moment was a shout of joy then, a package of happy chaos, as Menna absorbed the beating light and sharp sounds of a place brightly new, and we walked and walked under a hot summer sun.

We can’t find the restaurant. We settle for a beer at a table set in the Noordermarkt square, quiet pause among the determined little lanes, overseen by the placid old Noorderkerek, almost four hundred years old, looking modest and New England Protestant.

We have walked under the fairy tower of the Wesrerkerk, baby blue crown at the top, and by the somber dissonance of the Anne Frank House, and among the streets of the Jordaan as far west as possible, out past the centuries to where the neighborhoods resign to functional modernity, where the chain markets take over and where the cycle paths re-assert themselves and where the Dutch language resumes its funny rhythms.

We will stroll back toward the train station together as the sun sets, as the reds remaining in the sky tint the brick beside us, like stern church wine, like the gravid shadows that haunted Mr. Rembrandt.

We will awaken at 4:30am in order to take Menna to the Schiphol Airport. We will stand in line with cheerful Europeans on holiday, and we will make our farewells in front of the chambers of airport security. I will watch her unpacking her bag into the bins for the security apparatus. She will be flying soon. I will have spent a day alone in our apartment before she arrives.

Outside the lonely apartment, summer carries on with unabated charm. My summer will consist of long runs. I’ll soak up the sun. I’ll enjoy the waters of the river that way. I’ll enjoy the parks. My autumn training is starting. I have a race in Den Haag. I have a race in Eindhoven.

Menna and I have had our summer. We have visited the beach at Scheveningen, diving into the cold waters and learning how to swim again, lying on our beach towels. Menna is afraid of the sun. She thinks she will burn. She thinks she will be too dark. I’m laughing at her.

We have visited Paris when the sun was hottest.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Travelogue 567 – July 6
The Cup

The people in orange are dancing. There might be a light rain falling, but they are dancing. Menna wants to scream. She lets out a shrill whoop into the night. It’s well after midnight. An ambulance with blue flashing lights speeds past. But the street is blocked ahead, cars lined up in the road, honking their horns. In the intersection, the people in orange are dancing.

We are laughing at them. The people in orange were on TV, too, and they were acting just like people in orange. ‘That’s exactly what they’re like,’ Menna cries. This match was method, so different from yesterday’s between South American titans, in which passion was preferred to method. Tonight, passing and stubborn possession took precedence. The chances came, several shots were magically repelled by the woodwork, and the extra periods passed without score. In the final minutes, the brilliant chieftain replaced the man in front of the goal.

Then they turned out, the men in orange, with dispassion in their eyes, and while the opposition gathered in a stormy circle of intent and affirmation, the men in orange stood by. When it came time to shoot, each one walked directly to the position, placed the ball, and with no hesitation at all charged the ball and shot. Each ball entered. Cold, the men in orange! When the new man at the net repelled the second ball from the opposition, the game was won.

There’s a grim single-mindedness to the performance of the Dutch in this World Cup. They demonstrate no hopes for glory. They were never favorites. They came in with a young team, with no explicit expectation to reach the final game, like they did four years ago. They arrived with only the heart and mind of the grand new chieftain, Mr. Van Gaal. They arrived with the power and impetuousness of Arjen, the nearest embodiment of Dutch passion. Van Gaal has coached Arjen at Munich. After the World Cup, the chieftain will be moving on to Manchester United.

‘They’re so tough,’ says Menna. ‘That’s what I have to deal with every day! That!’ She points at the TV with both amusement and horror. Yes, that’s the Dutch way, the frank stare and the unyielding attitude. When and if they lose, they will clear the field with the same matter-of-fact manner. ‘They were better,’ they will say, if it comes to that. But, until they lose, they will show up on time and ready for quiet and dedicated work.

We need fresh air. We need some blood flow in the limbs. We have been sitting in front of the TV too long. There was the Argentina game, with our neighbors Belgium. There was a movie starring Tommy Lee, and then there was Holland’s unblinking show-down for their place in the final four.

It’s after midnight. The air is alive with car horns and fireworks. The people in orange are dancing in the streets. Menna wants to scream. I say, of course you do, and her whoop echoes from the faces of the apartment buildings lining our street.